One of my seminary professors defined sin as those things that keep us out of relationship with God.
After three days of reading about the murder of Dr. Tiller and the range of responses from both sides of the abortion debate, the one that pierced my heart came not from an anonymous or unknown so-called "pro-lifer" but from a mainline colleague, and a woman at that.
Abortion, she wrote, is sin.
I look back at the person I was in 1992, prior to receiving a prenatal diagnosis, prior to asking that question of God and myself in a personal way. I was 30. I had two small children. I had an unhappy and questionable marriage. I had an active life in my church.
I had a relationship with God, a lively one I would have said. I participated in Bible study. I volunteered at my church. I prayed. I lived a life I understood to be moral.
Sexually, I had a very clean record, having waited, as my mother advised, until my wedding night.
And I thought I knew everything. I "knew" that things worked out for good people and that bad things happened to people who sinned.
And I have to tell you that in that moment, on that April afternoon that the doctor called to give us the news, I was out of relationship with God. But I would argue about which one of us had abandoned the effort.
I grappled for a long time about the reasons for terminating the pregnancy. The baby had a condition that might or might not have been incompatible with life. A significant percentage might not survive to be born, while others would live. The array of possible side complications were not immediately identifiable at that moment and time was short to make a decision. We were told on Monday night that we needed to call back the next morning. If it didn't happen by Friday, the only doctor in the state who performed the procedure would be leaving on vacation, and his return two weeks later would be too late.
Although statistics vary (I've read 90% and even 95% as a termination rate for this condition), it's not a story people are telling. It's a moral grey area, I guess. I certainly saw it that way at the time and even to allude to it feels risky now. Especially now.
Last night I read a story on Andrew Sullivan's blog about a woman whose family objected when she chose to have an ectopic pregnancy terminated. What??!?!!!! An ectopic pregnancy always ends that way, to save the life of the woman. How was that a choice? It pointed up for me that one person's "choice" is another person's "obvious" and yet another person's "hard but right decision."
A friend of my mother's was pregnant in the 1950s when her houseful of young children came down with the German Measles. Her family doctor recommended terminating the pregnancy. He took into account the ages of the children, the capacity of the family to incorporate a child with an impairment; like Dr. Tiller's father, he performed an illegal abortion for the sake, as he understood it, of the woman and the whole family.
A high school friend whose religious leanings took a charismatic bent did what I never did; she slept with her boyfriend in college, over and over, unprotected because it was always unplanned. When her mother took her for an abortion, unblinkingly, my friend justified the abortion theologically as a "blood sacrifice."
There are all kinds of words, all sorts of ways of justifying ourselves. I have my words, too.
I'll tell you one thing this experience did for me and to me. It led me to a more nuanced understanding of people and their lives and their decisions. It led me to a more authentic relationship with God and a more, though not perfectly, forgiving relationship with others. Through a terrible loss, I became a fuller person, with a broader mind and a kinder heart.
These days I don't spend a lot of time pondering sin. I assume we all have things in our lives that get between us and God. As a pastor and a writer and a mother and a friend, I look for the ways we can reconnect and try to live them myself and point to them for others. It's not so categorical, and for people of some strands of belief, I realize that's unacceptable. Our expressions of faith can be different, I do believe that.
It's just that the word "sin" still hurts me, and that surprised me.
It's a powerful, accusatory word, the kind of word that riles people up and leads not to mutual understanding or reconciliation but to condemnation and, in this recent case, assassination. I felt strongly that the act of the shooter was wrong, but I've got to tell you, I never even thought the word "sin."